Finding Joy in Difficult Times, an Interview with James Baraz
Can you talk about gratitude in Buddhist terms—would it fall into the category of mudita, perhaps?
I would say that gratitude is a very powerful ally to cultivating mudita. The Buddha talks about the “blessings supreme” in the Mangala (Blessings) Sutta. Reflecting on the blessings in our life, one of which is specifically to be grateful, is a kind of mudita for oneself. You’re happy about and appreciative of your own good fortune and that opens your heart in a very powerful way. The more you get in touch with gratitude, the more directly you feel the abundance of blessings, and as you do the fullness you feel spills over to enjoy the good fortune, blessings and happiness of everyone around you.
If we are really caught up in our suffering or personal strife though, it can be hard even to be willing to try and feel joy for others. What’s a good way to break ourselves out of this trap?
When we’re caught up in our own suffering, mudita is a real stretch. But it’s actually a practice that can make a difference even when you’re going through difficult times. First, you need to be realistic about your own capacities and let go of any shoulds—as in “I should feel good about their good fortune”—that you hold as some impossible ideal. We need to start with compassion for ourselves and be very kind and patient with our actual internal experience.
Then, getting beyond the sense of isolation, you can connect with everyone who is going through suffering, starting with those dealing with a similar situation to what you’re in. The isolation and disconnection are what feeds fear, loneliness and helplessness. You are not alone. Your suffering is something that can lead you back to connection. Then, if you feel up to it, try putting that compassion into action. The surest way out of depression for instance is to help someone else who’s struggling. You feel of value through your ability to respond to others in need. In supporting others and helping them with your caring heart, you want to see them experience greater well-being. Feeling good about supporting them in their happiness can be a start to mudita practice.
You can also practice muditafor those who it’s easy to feel it for—nieces and nephews, children playing, babies giggling. When we’re having a hard time, we naturally seek experiencing mudita through entertainment. We go to the movies and root for the underdog or heroine/hero or our favorite sports team. The trick is to start widening the circle by realizing that the happiness of others (as long as it’s not at the expense of someone else) means that there’s a bit more happiness in the world. We can ride that well-being and let that wholesome, generous state activate our own goodness of heart.
Could you compare and contrast the benefits of equanimity (or upekkha) versus the benefits of mudita? How are they related in terms of our practice?
Both upekkha and mudita open the heart. Equanimity is the spaciousness that comes from allowing things to be as they are. Letting go of agendas for ourselves, for others and for life releases the contraction of wanting. Mudita is an openness that comes from a loving heart that sees others’ happiness. Mudita is probably more energizing but not necessarily better than upekkha. After all, the Buddha said that there’s no higher happiness than peace. But they actually work together. The near enemy of mudita is exhilaration, described as “a grasping at pleasant experience out of a sense of insufficiency or lack” as well as getting spun out from over-exuberance. We see this after a sports team wins a championship and people get drunk and riot. Equanimity brings a balance to the joy of mudita so that it stays grounded.
What have been a few of the most triumphant or joyous moments in your life, so if we need an image of you to use for mudita we have some good ones readily available?
Well, if you really want to know, these are the ones that come to mind: 1) my wedding day was quite powerful, surrounded by my friends and family witnessing the love that Jane and I committed to (now going on 30 years!); 2) reuniting with my older son, Tony, after 29 years (read Chapter 5 in my book Awakening Joy); 3) having great dharma conversations with my younger son, Adam; 4) delighting in helping someone see the Buddha inside themselves; 5) getting a lot of people singing together while I play guitar; 6) my 60th birthday when I really let in the love of my friends and family; 7) touching a place of purity, wonder and surrender in the midst of deep stillness on retreat.
In addition to his meditation classes, James teaches the Awakening Joy course www.awakeningjoy.infowhich will be open for registration in November.
The following is an excerpt from Awakening Joy, by James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander:
We see a baby squeal with delight and we feel delighted. We watch a movie and feel satisfied when the good guy finally gets the gal. Someone we love succeeds at a project they were nervous about, and we feel happy for them. There is a Sanskrit word used in Buddhist practice for the feeling of happiness at the joy and good fortune of others: mudita. Mudita, translated as sympathetic joy, means resonating with the happiness of another. It’s the joyful feeling we have when we’re cheering for others or celebrating their success. Just as with lovingkindness practice, we can do “mudita practice” to develop and expand the natural uplifting we feel when others thrive.
When we focus on the good fortune and happiness of others, we are entertaining positive images in our mind, which makes us happy. The moment we think, Oh, but I don’t have that, we drop into negative comparison, the mind tightens, and we’re unhappy. If you’re honest with yourself, you might have to admit that sometimes you do feel a little twinge of glee upon hearing of someone’s misfortune. The French philosopher Montaigne wrote, “There is something altogether not too displeasing in the misfortune of our friends.” The German language even has a term for this: schadenfreude, feeling happiness at the misery of others.
What is this feeling about? We probably can find the roots of this tendency in the way competition for survival is programmed into our brain. To me it suggests that we believe we are competing for happiness, as if there is a quota on the amount of happiness in the world. If they have it, there’s less for me. But this is not true. For instance, it doesn’t work that way with anger. Ever notice what happens when someone comes into a room who’s very angry? Do you relax and think Oh, good. They’re angry, so there’s less for me!? Probably not. We all know how being around a negative person rubs off on us. Fortunately the same happens with joy when we get our comparing mind out of the way and let ourselves rejoice in the happiness of others. These are examples of our natural capacity for sympathetic joy, our mirror neurons in action, registering the experience of others in our own system.
Jim knew how easily he could fall into envy and judgment with certain people in his life, especially those who loved their jobs and enjoyed their lives—quite a contrast to his own situation. He wrote me an email about this after the Awakening Joy session in which sympathetic joy was introduced.
“It’s really hard to wish successful people even greater success. If they become happier, I’ll feel even worse.”
“Why don’t you try it a few times,” I wrote back. “See what happens, and let me know how it goes.”
Much to his surprise, Jim found that the practice had the opposite effect. In his next email he said:
“Whenever I find myself being critical in my mind toward someone, I’ve started changing the thought to: May your joy and happiness continue, and may good fortune follow you everywhere. Once I’ve wished it for them, I find I really want them to have it.”
I too ran into a snag when I was working on sympathetic joy. The practice traditionally begins with thinking of someone in a moment of triumph. For a while my mind was blank. I knew a lot of people who were pretty happy, but I wanted to root for someone who was in a moment of intense celebration. And then in a flash it came to me—Steve Young, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, my all-time favorite athlete. For years, every time I’d thought about him, I would feel joy. So I imagined him right after winning the Superbowl, running around the stadium deliriously happy, going into the stands to high-five fans with a beautiful goofy grin on his face. Bringing that image to mind was like opening the faucet of joy in my heart. My eyes welled up with tears. Once the valve opened, I was able to turn that thought toward other people in my life, sending them heartfelt wishes: May your happiness grow. Mine certainly did.
Keep your radar out for happiness around you. When you see or hear about others who are experiencing happiness in their lives, know that their joy is contributing a little more happiness to the world. Tune into their reality and let their happiness rub off on you. Silently send them wishes that their happiness may continue and grow. Notice how you feel in your body and mind as you do this. If any thoughts of jealousy or envy arise, notice them without judgment, and return to your wishes for their continued happiness. As the Dalai Lama says, if we derive happiness from the happiness of others, we have at least six billion more opportunities to be happy.